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COVID-19: A SUCCESS STORY (Winter Bulletin 5781)  

18/12/2020 09:26:01 AM

Dec18

In his book, The Home We Build Together, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l describes three parables for society and identity: the country house, the hotel and the home. The country house divides us into hosts and guests. There are insiders and outsiders, the majority and minorities. In the hotel, everyone is a guest. You pay the price; you get a room; and you are free to do what you like so long as you do not interfere with the other guests. In the home, we care about belonging – it is not just where we are but who we are. We have responsibilities to our home – not just rights within it. Rabbi Sacks applies these parables to English society. The country house is the assimilationist model – “the melting pot.” The hotel is the procedural state with its embrace of multi-culturalism. The home is Rabbi Sacks’ vision of a future society committed to a common project.

Rabbi Sacks’ three parables apply not just to political-life but also to synagogue-life. We have witnessed these three parables during the COVID-Crises. Every experience in life teaches us something. This is especially true of crises. In these moments, we can learn the most about others and ourselves.

A synagogue might be seen as a country house in that there are insiders and outsiders with varying levels of commitment. Before Rosh Hashanah this year, suspicions were raised, online and within many communities, about whether members would rejoin their synagogues. In the midst of a pandemic, would people contribute to an institution, if they were not able to attend regular High Holiday services?  The question presumes an insider and outsider perspective. The insiders judge the outsiders’ commitment.

A synagogue might be seen like a hotel in that a synagogue is a business that serves consumers. When a product is delivered, the customer pays – when the synagogue is closed – due to a pandemic or otherwise – he or she does not.

Both these parables find echoes in the following quote from a July 2020 JTA article:

Across the country, synagogues are bracing for a significant reduction in revenues. Though many are seeing increased attendance at virtual services, without the annual cash infusion that in-person High Holiday services bring, and with community members under financial pressure, congregations across the denominational spectrum aren’t sure how they’ll make ends meet this year.

At Shaarei Shomayim, these dire predictions did not come true. As a synagogue community, we are not a country house or a hotel. We have been, are and will be a home. In the midst of the crisis, new members joined us in support of our response and the values that our response reflects. Throughout the crisis, we came together. Throughout the crisis, we put the health (physical, social, spiritual and mental) of our people seriously. Whether our health allows us to come to shul or not, we have demonstrated that our Judaism is a part of who we are. In the early stages of the pandemic, we reached out to one another - seeking out those who were alone. For the high holidays, I turned to a great group of volunteers who stepped up in leading services. Many more reached out for guidance during this time for themselves, their families and their friends. At Kol Nidre, we launched the COVID-19 Emergency Campaign, which I initiated and led with the help of dedicated community members. We have already raised over half a million dollars from over 150 families. Yet, success is not in dollars. Success is in the commitment and connection that those dollars reflect.

What happened? Why did we succeed in the face of this terrible crisis? The answer is, “A shul is a home.” Our Judaism isn’t a consumer product or experience. Our Judaism is our identity. That identity involves coming together (sometimes in person - always in spirit) during difficult times. That identity means living for more than our self-interest. We take responsibility for the destiny of our people. We take responsibility for that destiny as embodied by our synagogue. It is here, with our community, that we do together the things that we cannot do alone.

One of the challenges that Rabbi Sacks faced in applying the parable of home to general society is that many had forgotten what a home is. In our preoccupation with the language of rights, we have forgotten the idea of responsibilities. We have become an I–generation: IPod, IPhone, I everything. We see everything in terms of the individual, and this causes an error in our thinking.

So why did the prognosticators quoted by the JTA get this wrong (almost as bad as US pollsters, l’havdil.) In some respects they are like classical economists who have created a fictional creature to populate their model of the Jewish people – this creature is very much like what Richard Thaler calls “Econs” in contrast to humans.  What’s an Econ? Thaler explains:

“For four decades, since my time as a graduate student, I have been preoccupied by… the myriad ways in which people depart from the fictional creatures that populate economic models. It has never been my point to say that there is something wrong with people; we are all just human beings—homo sapiens. Rather, the problem is with the model being used by economists, a model that replaces homo sapiens with a fictional creature called homo economicus, which I like to call an Econ for short. Compared to this fictional world of Econs, Humans do a lot of misbehaving, and that means that economic models make a lot of bad predictions, predictions that can have… serious consequences….”

― Richard H Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics

Translating the econ paradigm into a Jewish context, we might describe Jewcons as people who are always rational, always selfish, and unchanging in their tastes. They live in Rabbi Sacks’ hotel parable with very little interest in their part of the Jewish story or in their responsibility to one another. However, COVID-19 has proven this understanding of Jews wrong. We are not Jewcons. We are enriched with neshamot that respond well to the call of the Torah. We understand that our greatest asset is not in the bank – but in the relationships that give our lives meaning, especially our relationship to Hashem. When under pressure, we will not mortgage our part in the story of our people – our home – for consumables of any sort. We have demonstrated who we are. We are not Jewcons – we are Jewman beings. This is the story of our success this time – and through time.

Yashar kochachem. Let us take pride in our commitments. May we merit to celebrate this success in health and happiness - TOGETHER - sometime soon.

Wed, 28 July 2021 19 Av 5781